When she was 5 years old, Joenette Mansel Franklin was woken up in the middle of the night because her family had to flee their home in North Carolina. Her father’s life had been threatened.
“It happened one day when my father went to buy a loaf of bread at the store, and they made him wait 90 minutes while the white people were served first,” she recalled. “He told them, ‘I am next’ and they said to him, ‘We are paying you a visit at your household.’ They planned to lynch my father, mother and me, but the neighbors gave us money to leave.”
Joenette told me her story a year ago. She said her father took his family south to Charleston, where right in the center of town was the “hanging tree.” But there was also refuge. They were cared for by nuns who belonged to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.
“The nuns took us in and even though I am 83 years old, I can close my eyes and still see that room and the little pallets they made for us to sleep on,” she recalled.
In our troubled times, we often hear about “white privilege.” Celebrities, whose commitment to social justice is often limited to hashtags and Twitter commentary, use the term often. The woman who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament understood “white privilege.” She was an heiress, the daughter of investment banker Francis Anthony Drexel, who in the late 19th century was one of the richest men in America.
His daughter Katharine Mary, born in 1858, truly understood the privilege that comes with wealth. She rode in a private railroad car, traveled the world, received an excellent education from private tutors and had a grand debut into Philadelphia society.
There was another education she received — in kindness. Three times a week, her family opened their home and distributed food, rent money and clothes to the needy, and if they knew someone in a desperate situation who was reluctant to visit them, they would go to them to offer assistance.
During her travels, Katharine saw firsthand the deprivation that Native Americans and African Americans suffered. Instead of marrying, she decided to enter the religious life and work with the poor and disenfranchised. The banner headline in the Philadelphia Public Ledger announcing her decision proclaimed, “Miss Drexel Enters Convent — Gives Up Seven Million!” (Today, her father’s estate would be worth $400 million.)
Katharine professed her first vows in 1891 and was committed to working with African Americans and Native Americans. Along with 13 other women, Mother Drexel began her congregation of sisters, educating and opening boarding schools across the country. They eventually started 145 missions, 12 schools for Native Americans and 50 for African Americans, including Xavier University of Louisiana, the only black Catholic college in the United States.
Joenette Franklin was educated in these schools.
Her family later moved to Cleveland because her father feared the Ku Klux Klan would find them. Even though they lived near St. Timothy’s Church, Joenette could not attend its school because she was black.
“I had to take two buses and a street car and another bus to go to St. Edward’s School across town, where the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament taught,” she said.
When she moved to Connecticut in 1953, she would attend church services in downtown Hartford. “If I sat next to a white person, they would get up and move,” she recalls. “They don’t do that anymore. When you go in now, people are very kind.”
“The Sisters instilled a love of God in me and taught me not to hate,” she says. “They told me to love everybody. They taught me a wonderful thing. They taught me to love and not look at skin tones. As for people who are racist, you pray for them.”
The Sisters, however, had one peculiar rule.
“The nuns wouldn’t use my name because they said it wasn’t a saint’s name,” Joenette recalled. “So they called me by my middle name.” What was it? Katherine.
By Joe Pisani